I co-run an artist collective called The GAP Studio with one artist Nuria Rovira Terradas, and over on The GAP Studio blog we’re beginning a written exchange. The idea is every other week Nuria and I write something, in part as a response to what was written the week before, but also on something that’s interesting us at the time. We’re both keen to sustain more consistent writing practices, so we’re excited to see where this goes! To start the exchange, I’ve written a bit of a thought experiment on the places I’ve lived in since I left Morecambe in May this year. I’m sharing my first post in this exchange over here!
In the last six months I’ve moved from one of the most remote places in the UK to the most populated place. The first of these locations was where I spent the summer, living on a 15 minute wide island called St Agnes in the Atlantic ocean. This island is part of the Scilly Isles, a collection of islands a few hours off the coast of Cornwall. Part traditional english seaside, part tropical paradise, there are no cars, no street lights, and no buildings over two stories.
During my time there I lived in a tent, and would wake up every morning to be confronted by 180 degrees of sky and sea. From the oceanside field first thing each morning, empty space would roll outwards towards the horizon, towards a distant idea of America. For three months I lived like this, and being immersed in so much empty space rubbed off on me. As the summer went on I noticed I felt more creative than usual; I had more thoughts on the books I was reading, and lots of ideas for paintings I wanted to work on. I was able to connect seemingly random thoughts, and chew on tricky ideas with fresh energy. It felt as if my head had more space in it, and between my sketchbook and I, and a few conversations with a friends, I could feel it.
The island was also a place of constant transition and renewal. St. Agnes would occasionally be battered by intense storms that rolled in fresh from the depths of the Atlantic ocean. On these days the sea would crash against pre-historic crags of rock hanging off the edges of the island. In the power of these storms you could feel the boundary between land and sea shifting, as rocks dissolved into the ocean. For other weeks of the summer, the sea would softly hiss and purr to the white sand, creeping up the beach before licking back again in a lulling rhythm. On these days the water was the softest most gentle enveloping around my feet, and I didn’t know, I felt how cumbersome rocks could become smooth, round pebbles. To be surrounded by this restless, endless process of destruction and re-making, moving on time scales I could only glimpse at in the periphery of my imagination, I felt this transition in myself too. A new desire and openness for renewal, restlessness for change in myself, and to shift the relationships in my life.
For example the ocean surrounding the island felt like a nurturing, motherly presence somehow. Kasia and I spoke about this a lot, how life is thought to have began in the ocean, and so this vast body of water nurtured the life that is now on this island into being. This presence reminded me of the nurturing attention I craved in my life, the reason I think I began to process difficult emotions in my relationship between my mum and I that bubbled up over the summer.
So after three months I had found a new perspective on the relationship between my body and this wonderful little island: I may have spent the summer effecting trampling on it, tending to it, eating from it, but it was also effecting me too – the processes and spaces of the place were being mirrored in my own body.
After a summer of sun, sea and hippy tent life, I left the island for ‘mainland’ in early September, and within weeks was set down in London, dizzy from the change.
I grew up in the city and I have always loved the buzz of its streets; that palpable feeling of ambition, and the great history of the place reflected in the kaleidoscope of architecture. I expected to come back to London and feel I belonged here among these beautiful London Plane trees and bright night vistas. But you cannot undo where you have been, and suddenly London appeared as someplace unbalanced and unhealthy. The bustle of the city was now overshadowed by it’s lack of the more-than-human, and the city felt like a fraction of what a place can be.
Of course my shock on returning to London isn’t very surprising, the difference between Scilly and London couldn’t be greater. Vast gulps of empty sky suspending clouds hundreds of kilometres tall, and the sea, an ancient and familiar entity embracing me with its terrifying more-than-human power, was replaced with skies only to be glimpsed at through narrow slits between skyscrapers, hunks of immovable glass and steel. Open fields became pre-determined walking routes called pavements, and rather than a jaunt through a field to work, I now commuted for an hour through confined tunnels of concrete and metal. And the clear, bright nighttime was replaced with a dull, grey haze and the sea air swapped for the sickly sweet smell of car fumes.
So this shock is to be expected, nevertheless, I write this essay after being in London for three months, and although that initial shock is gone – I have since found ways to express myself within the pavements and underground corridors, I have found time to leave the city and breath cleaner air, I make sure I pause and check in against this restless culture – I am still left with a dull awareness of how this city changes people, how it rubs off on me. I have noticed that just like I mirrored my environment in the Scilly Isles, I am mirroring London too.
Take for example the ‘Boomerang’ skyscraper, this is a humungous lump of concrete, metal and glass that towers above me whilst I work in my studio five days a week beneath it. This building, and others nearby, shadow the sky. All that empty space above is cluttered by these immense unmoving objects. That wonderful relief of looking up cannot be found when empty space is spied at through thin gaps between buildings.
There is also a huge sense of being propelled along a pre-determined route in London. Travelling in the underground, confined to a metal tube within a concrete tunnel, there is only one direction to go. I feel my head mirrors this tunnel vision. My day becomes about getting to a destination along a predetermined schedule. The idea of meandering, towards unknown ideas, destinations, conversations, seems absurd. Why would I? When the easiest, fastest route can be pre-determined on City Mapper. Even the banks of the River Thames, this vast flowing, ancient river that runs through the city is directed through solid concrete banks. And in the same fashion I have noticed that my head has this new tendency to channel streams of thought into neat sections, ideas, relationships emotions become partitioned, compartmentalised.
These large city objects; the skyscrapers, tunnels and river banks, are bigger than me, they will outlive me, and were created from collective activity. So shouldn’t they also provoke a feeling of awe that matches the experience of say a big sky or open sea? Except there is one big distinction; the large city objects champion immovability, they are fixed, static and totally human. Exactly the opposite of what the Scilly Isles celebrates: constant change, destruction and renewal, made up an ‘assemblage’ of the more-than-human (to use Jane Bennett’s phrasing). And so when I am in the city I unconsciously mirroring these qualities, of stagnancy, fixed ideas and desperation for certainty. Openness to new ideas, the importance of nurturing, my awareness of processes greater than me, my embrace of the unknown and the unplanned, these habits don’t feel natural, because in London my mind seems to contract. I am about efficiency, smooth operations and ticking boxes. I feel I have less ideas and less creativity. My head feels closed, directed, un-open.
Okay, this sounds pretty dramatic! I’m not suddenly a robot on auto-pilot, and I still feel some creativity, but I do have to search much harder to tap into positive energies.
What this move between London and Scilly has shown me is that my body, and surely all of our bodies, mirror our environments, I mirror in some way whatever I face. In the city I am mirroring human action, human design, human buildings, human-ness. And the city seems to reflect this energy back at me. Since I face so many other people mirroring their environment too, you have two mirrors that face each other, human action reflected in each. The effect is I think like an infinity mirror.
Looking into an infinity mirror, your reflection appears as a series of smaller and smaller reflections that recede to infinity. I feel a city creates this effect. I am mirroring the human action around me, which mirrors my human action back. The city is an endlessly reflection of human action, reflecting forever inwards. An echo-chamber of human ideas, going ever further into the human world, getting ever further from anything outside of itself.
People who stay inside the city, inside the effect of the infinity mirror, for a length of time go so far into the human echo-chamber that they become extremely disconnected from the more-than-human, that it might as well not exist (except for on our Netflix screens, where the more-than-human is mediated by a camera and editing suite).
I had a conversation with a lady who walked into my open studio a few weeks back. I asked her where she was from and she said ‘the North-West’, and my reaction was ‘oh I went to uni up in Lancashire’ Little did I know she actually meant the North-West of London! There is a strange insularity to the most global city in the UK, and I think the infrastructure of London is one compelling reason why.
I want to do more thinking on these ideas. I am intending to read the book ‘Atmospheric Architectures’ by Gernot Böhme, which addresses our sensitivity to built environments. But for now I wonder, how could cities be constructed socially, architecturally, economically, politically, culturally, ideologically, to reverse this effect of the city as an infinity mirror? Perhaps an answer lies in celebrating the existence of the more-than-human in our daily lives?
If you’d like to follow this writing exchange head on over here.